- Kamakshi Tandon
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MADRID -- Serena Williams is on a four-match losing streak for the first time in her career, and she wants you to know that she's holding the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour responsible. Recently, Williams has repeatedly accused the tour of forcing her to playing tournaments when not fully fit, alluding to a draconian system of fines and punishments that compels her to drag an obviously hurting leg on court week after week.
A few days after she lost in Rome last week, an update on Williams' Twitter page said, "I don't think it was a good idea to play Rome, but I would have been punished so I played and now I am suffering but the WTA has RULES!"
She expanded on the theme in one of her typically colorful blog entries for her Web site, writing: "Now, I'm getting my leg prepared for the French Open. I don't think it was good for me to play Rome, but the WTA has rules and regulations that they enforce. There are moments like now where I feel they don't care if you are headless if you don't play a tournament you are severely punished. I personally disagree with some of the rules enforced by the WTA, yet I comply. So, for now, I am preparing myself and trying to remain calm."
Just to make sure the message was getting through, Williams repeated the sentiment in similar terms during a pre-tournament news conference in this week's Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open. "Unfortunately, it doesn't matter if you are injured, it doesn't matter if you are dead or alive, if you don't play they are going to fine you heavy on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, so I have to play," she said. "Whether I'm injured or not, that's how it is, so I have no choice."
A day later, Williams retired at 6-4 down against Francesca Schiavone in her first-round match with a right knee injury, acknowledging that she abandoned the match to avoid aggravating the injury ahead of the French Open. "I didn't want to risk my chances to play Roland Garros," Williams said after Monday's loss. "I wanted to do well [here] but at the end of the day, I'm trying to play Paris and still trying to play singles and doubles there."
She had anticipated the injury would be an issue before arriving in Madrid. "Yeah, but I don't really have a choice whether I can play or not," she said, echoing her earlier complaints.
Williams said the problems that have plagued her through the early spring are all related, beginning in the final of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami and continuing through first-round losses at the Andalucia Tennis Experience in Marbella, the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome, and now Madrid.
So what are these "severe punishments'" compelling the world No. 2 to traipse around the courts of Europe instead of resting her leg? Actually, nothing that debilitating -- a couple of five-figure fines and potentially a few hundred thousand in bonus prize money. Not peanuts, but hardly crippling for a multimillionaire athlete who values her health.
For a player at Williams' level, pulling out of Madrid would mean a $75,000 fine, plus giving up the $400,000 in bonus money the WTA awards to top players for playing all four mandatory events. But Williams had already forfeited the bonus when she pulled out of the mandatory BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, so the only financial cost of pulling out of Madrid would have been the fine, which is relatively modest given her $2 million earnings to date this season.
Still, the recently cost-conscious Williams sees even $75,000 as steep. "I'm remodeling a house," she said. "Seventy-five thousand dollars -- I don't know about to anyone else, but that's a lot of money to me. That's like my whole furniture bill -- some stairs, rugs, that can go a long way. In this economy, I'm not in a position to just write out $75,000 checks. Are you?"
Ana Ivanovic, who also has a knee injury, decided to go the opposite route, withdrawing from Madrid and accepting the penalties. The Serb has also previously criticized the tour's increased scheduling requirements: "I do believe it's going to be a lot of tournaments we have to commit to and it's maybe going to be a little bit harder in that sense," she said at the end of last season. "We don't have much opportunity to choose, and at the end of the day it might be that we play more matches than we did in previous years."
Of course, the real teeth behind participation in mandatory events like Madrid is supposed to be the suspension players can receive for missing it. But that rule has a major loophole -- the suspension is waived as long as the player appears at the tournament to explain her absence, or does a tour-related promotional event in the tournament region in the next 12 months.
What's more, WTA officials say that fulfilling the appearance obligation also cancels out the fine, leaving only the rankings penalty of zero points for the tournament. That makes Williams' financial concerns and statement about "having to play" even more incongruous. In fact, she need never have set foot on court -- having come to Madrid and already done her pre-event promotional activities by Monday, she had already saved $75,000 for the home renovations budget and didn't have to risk further injury by playing a match.
The increased scheduling restrictions the tour has introduced this year have come with a significant increase in prize money, most prominently the $4.5 million events like Madrid that offer prize money equal to the men's. Wittingly or unwittingly, players traded freedom for cash when submitting to the Roadmap.
Many realized it only at the end of last season, too late to push for signficant modifications. "Many players probably didn't look deep into it and kind of let it go, and all of a sudden you're there with the change, so it's a little bit hard," said Ivanovic.
"The WTA is doing everything for themselves, for the sponsors, but they don't realize we have to choose where we want to play and not want to play," said Agnieszka Radwanska, just one of a number of players expressing reservations and confusion about the upcoming season's calendar makeover.
Ironically, one of the few players who expressed public support for the changes has been Serena's sister Venus, who is a member of the WTA Player Council.
"It creates a stronger business model for not only the players but the tournaments," said Venus. "I feel like the Roadmap is a great thing."
"The cornerstone rationale behind the tour's 2009 Roadmap calendar is that fans deserve to see their favorite players playing more consistently on the tour's biggest stages, and that players deserve as healthy a calendar as possible," the WTA Tour said in a statement. "In this latter regard, the tour's 2009 Roadmap calendar is in many respects the healthiest calendar for players in the tour's history, highlighted by a longer offseason, more in-season breaks, and a top player commitment reduced from 12 to 10 events."
Serena was even-tempered on Monday, given the circumstances, but would not be drawn on whether she would accept a drop in prize money for the return of greater flexibility. "I don't know about that; I'm just here to try to compete and do my best and it didn't work out," she said.
One of the key elements of the new tournament participation rules is that being injured no longer allows players to avoid fines and/or an appearance at bigger events. Asked if she thought the new rules were developed partly as a reaction to her frequent and sometimes dubious pullouts in past years, Williams said, "Yeah, I don't know, I guess."
Last week, Williams made headlines when she declared that she, and not the newly crowned Dinara Safina, was the "real" world's No. 1. The truth of the statement is difficult to dispute, even if the reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open champ drew some criticism for her bluntness.
But her protests about being forced to play ring more hollow. For years, Williams paid the rules scant attention and set her schedule according to her own priorities and physical state. Now, she seems to be setting a rather low price on her own health by choosing to play injured rather than pay a few fines.
It's a strange sight: a player who has earned almost $24 million in prize money during her career -- not to mention millions more in endorsements -- martyring herself over a few hundred thousand dollars. But so far, she has no convincing explanation for why she has made that choice. And make no mistake -- a choice it is.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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